Legend has it that Anssi Vanjoki, the ex-Nokia VP who many inside the company once thought would be its next CEO, used to refer to the now-defunct MeeGo OS team as the “Alpha team” based on their hard work and ability to produce results with limited resources. It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn that more than one startup has been created by members of the MeeGo alumni.
In that group, alongside Jolla — the mobile phone upstart hoping to resurrect the fortunes of Nokia’s abandoned open source OS — is the equally ambitious CBTec, which has its sights set on the $18 billion online learning industry. It’s recently launched Eliademy, a free, cloud-based VLE to initially take on legacy players like Blackboard, but with broader plans to become a leading MOOC (Massively Open Online Course), pitting it against Kleiner-backed Coursera, among many others in the fast-growing MOOC space.
However, adopting a strategy that feels at least a little like it borrows from the Nokia playbook, CBTec is choosing to focus on emerging and non-English-speaking countries — a market that co-founder and CEO Sotiris Makrygiannis thinks many existing players in the online learning space, and Silicon Valley as a whole, ignore at their peril.
“We start from the opposite direction with heavy investment in localisation, understanding the different cultures, different education systems they have,” says Makrygiannis, who was most recently director of applications and site manager of Nokia’s Helsinki R&D center, and one of the last to jump the MeeGo ship. “That’s our differentiator.”
To that end, Eliademy already supports English, Finnish, Russian, and Latin American Spanish, with plans to add another 50 languages, one week at a time. Unsurprisingly, given that Makrygiannis and many of CBTec’s 16-person-strong team are ex-Nokians who worked on MeeGo and its various open source products, the platform is based on the open source Moodle, though it has a radically cleaner and more modern design. Makrygiannis says the aim was to do away with much of Moodle’s over engineering and non-core functionality to focus on Eliademy’s usability. CBTec is also contributing back to Moodle’s codebase.
“It’s Really Hard, We have been in the Nokia bubble for a very long time”
In terms of positioning, Eliademy provides common VLE and MOOC features, such as a CMS for course content, support for file attachments (including the ability to view Word documents in the browser), a task manager, shared calendar, and discussion forums. In addition, it offers a student grading system to enable teachers to get a holistic overview of a student’s progress, along with notifications akin to the social networking apps that we’ve all become accustomed to.
Its killer feature, however, is that the core VLE functionality is both free and cloud-based. Makrygiannis says that he believes that VLEs need to be driven to a price point that the basic service becomes a commodity to help spread education in the developing world and to democratise learning. He also notes that Universities and other education providers in emerging and less-developed education markets are more ready to accept a cloud solution, rather than want to host the platform themselves. Overall, the conversation on that front, around things like data confidentiality, is similar to that of the enterprise. Users own the data on Eliademy, while the company goes to lengths to segregate it, says Makrygiannis.
In terms of how Eliademy plans to make money, it has a number of ideas, such as creating a marketplace for content, but is strictly focused on growth and product development at this stage. On that note, with the company already a year old, I asked Makrygiannis how he was finding startup life. “It’s a hard job,” he says. “Really hard. We have been in the Nokia bubble for a very long time; money was coming in no matter what the weather.”
Makrygiannis is being modest, however. CBTec generated around 1 million euros in the first 12 months from various consulting and mobile software work and is already profitable. Money it’s using to bootstrap Eliademy. Its only outside funding is a small grant from the Finnish government, too, who it’s also working with in conjunction with Tivit.fi as part of a strategic initiative to create new disruptive digital services.
Loyal to the end, Makrygiannis won’t be drawn publicly on what could or should have been at Nokia, although I get the sense that MeeGo’s shuttering not only came as a shock but took its toll on him and his team. At one time, MeeGo and its line of products, such as the N9, was supposed to be the handset maker’s saviour after all.
He did share one story, however, of how he pitched and built a Skype competitor in the early days of VoIP, only to fail to get Nokia to commit the required resources to roll it out. In contrast, CBTec and Eliademy is a chance for this team of ex-Nokians to be in charge of their own destiny.
Finally, I asked Makrygiannis if he’s used one of Nokia’s new Lumia smartphones and what he thinks of Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
“No, I’ll never touch one. Ever,” he says emphatically.
And perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Prior to resigning from Nokia, Makrygiannis was offered the role of leading the company’s Windows Phone engineering teams but rejected it on “ideological” grounds.